BMW first launched the 1 Series, their smallest car since the diminutive 700 of the early 1960s, which most will either never have heard of, or forgotten all about, in 2004. It was a direct response to the Audi A3, whose success had proved that there was a significant and growing demand for a family-sized hatchback with a “premium” badge on it. Unlike any other car in the sector, it was engineered with rear-wheel drive, BMW seeing no reason to break with tradition and their heritage, believing that this would give them a unique selling proposition in the class. The timing proved to be good, and the car found much favour among buyers, even if the motoring press found nothing to give it any particular superiority over a growing list of rivals. A second generation model appeared in 2011. It followed the same formula and, as is the BMW way, it looked quite similar to the outgoing car. That said, I still recall all the comments which were made especially about the front end, and none of them were positive. A modest facelift in 2015 has not really improved matters, but over time, I guess we have all got used to the look. The slightly awkward appearance has not been an impediment to sales in a sector which now numbers rather more rivals than was the case when the first car was launched, with the 1 Series family – which includes the closely related 2 Series Coupe and Convertible cars – with the model having broken into the UK’s Top Ten more than once. That makes it an important car in the market, and one which I have been keen to try for myself for some time. That has proved surprisingly difficult, as although the car appeared on numerous car rental company listings across Europe, whenever I booked the requisite category, I have always been supplied with something else. Finally, as this test evidences, I managed to get one. It came, not from Hertz, whose fleet in the build up to Christmas was clearly in such demand that whatever they had left had prices multiplied by about 8 over what I would expect to pay, nor Avis, who were completely sold out of cars for the same period, but from Sixt. In fact, I had booked a cheaper category of car, but this is what was offered to me: a BMW 118d M-Sport, almost brand new, and finished in Alpine White Metallic. Logistics were such that I had the car for a week, though in that time, it spent some days motionless on the drive, but I was able to take it out a couple of times in quest of some photo locations in the winter sunshine as well as the trip up and down the M4, ample to reach a conclusion on the car.
There is keyless starting, so to fire the engine, you simply press the button to the left of the wheel. The noise that ensued was quite surprising. Sufficiently so that I had to check that this was indeed the diesel-powered car that I had been told. Sure enough, there was a 118d badge on the rear of the car, and there was a marking of “diesel” in the fuel gauge. But it really did not sound like it. Truly, this could be the most refined sounding diesel engine I’ve ever come across. Certainly on start up and at idle, but even once underway, it was extremely refined, with nothing really to remind you that this is indeed going to need fuel from the black pump. As is the case with most BMW models these days, the badging does not tell you the actual capacity of the engine any more. In fact this car has a 4 cylinder 2 litre unit, which puts out 150 bhp at 4000 rpm and 300 Nm of torque. It was coupled to BMW’s 8-speed Steptronic automatic transmission. The pairing works well. The gearbox is super smooth, making ratio changes that are all but undetectable. The car seemed always to be in the right ratio. That said, if you are expecting something that is fast or sporty in feel, you are going to be a bit disappointed. Whilst the 118d goes well enough, it never strikes you as rapid. Think of it more as smooth and refined, and your expectations will be met. That’s not a phrase that I can use to describe the fuel economy. During my test, most of the mileage of which was conducted on the motorway at a steady speed, I averaged just 40.9 mpg, which I think is extremely disappointing, and a good 10 mpg less than I was expecting. BMW’s figures show that the automatic is more economical than the manual and the CO2 rating is down from 104 to 99 g/km. There is a Stop/Start system, one of many features which BMW includes to improve economy (or at least, the official figures!), and it worked very unobtrusively. There was a worse surprise to come.
As I set off, on to the M4, a road I know well, it only took a couple of miles to conclude that the ride was utterly unbearable. Surfaces which have troubled no other car I have driven seemed to be exceedingly rough for the first time, and those which are evident in most cars were particularly unpleasant. The car rides on run flat 225/40 R18 wheels, and it is well known that the extra stiffness of these tyres can cause discomfort. However, the real reason for the truly unacceptable ride emerged when on the second day, I pressed the Driver Mode button in the centre console. It turned out that the car had been supplied in Sport+ mode, which while making the throttle and steering that bit more responsive also make the suspension so unforgiving. Putting the car into Sport mode improved things a little and opting for Comfort made rather more of a difference. Whilst the extra urgency that you can feel the moment you press Sport is quite welcome, the penalty in ride comfort is so bad that you are going to have to resist it most of the time, on British roads at least. If you are expecting the rest of the driving experience to be the “Ultimate Driving Machine”, then I think you are going to be disappointed. There’s nothing (else) that is bad. Noise levels are low at all times, with little in the way of contribution from the wind or the road, let alone the engine, meaning that this is a peaceful cruiser on the motorway. The steering is well-weighted and has a nice feel to it, and the car corners tidily enough, with the feeling that there is plenty of grip. But does the much-vaunted benefit of being rear-wheel drive endow all the benefits that this format promises? Err, no. Perhaps it you were to push the car to its limits on a track, you would discover that it does, and I can well believe that with a lot more power under the bonnet, you would also tell the difference, but in this guise, it does not feel like you get much benefit, and there are some significant penalties in packaging, as you will read later in this review. The brakes were well up to par. A conventional pull-up handbrake is fitted, between the seats. Visibility out of the 1 series is about what you expect from any modern car. There are thick pillars which even a good field of view from the mirrors can’t really get around. There are rear parking sensors, and the stubby tail does mean that judging where the back of the car is proved not be a problem, but over the shoulder visibility does suffer from the thick C pillars.
Opening the door of the test car for the first time, there would have been no doubt as to the marque identity for anyone who had not seen the badge outside. All the BMW characteristics are here. Most of the materials used are of high quality, with a pleasing leather wrap to the steering wheel, and a dashboard moulding from a high quality plastic, though the inlays, of dark gunmetal and gloss black don’t look as rich and feel very cheap if you actually touch them. At least everything fits together well and seems well assembled. Sitting at the bottom of the marque’s hierarchy, with fewer features than you will find in some of their more costly models, that means that it is not over-loaded with additional buttons, so what you first see looks refreshingly simple. A curved binnacle contains the two instruments, which are both digital, so there is only a blank panel until you start the car. The graphics are particularly clear making them easy to read. Set in the lower part of each of the rev counter and speedo are smaller gauges for fuel level and fuel consumption. There is no water temperature gauge. The odometer and trip computer functions are at the very bottom of the cluster in the centre. They are set so low that from my seating position, I could not actually read them, which proved somewhat frustrating. There are two very chunky column stalks, with indicators on the left and wipers on the right. They both have a conventional operation, with the one-touch indicators that I have encountered in some other BMW models not present here. Lights are operated from a rotary dial on the right of the dash, with an Auto setting meaning I did not actually need to touch this. The centre of the dash is dominated by the 6.5″ display screen for the iDrive infotainment system. This contains displays for the audio set up, the standard navigation and various car settings. Functions are selected from a turn wheel and a number of buttons in the centre console. It took some getting used to. For a start, scrolling down the menu options, I always seemed to turn the wheel the wrong way (it goes in the opposite direction to most other cars!). I also struggled to retune the radio on collection, though some of this was because the car was in an underground carpark where there was no signal, so the system could not find any alternatives to the AM channel that was buzzing away. DAB radio is included and the test car included the optional Harman Kardon sound system. There are various “driver profile” settings you can store here, and every time I started it up, this screen reappeared, wanting me to reselect a setting I did not want. No doubt more study of the system, or reading the driver’s handbook (which was not supplied with the car) would pay dividends! Beneath this unit are a series of pre-set buttons for the radio and an off/off volume knob. Below this are the buttons for the single zone automated climate control. One further button in the centre console, for the driver mode settings, of which more later, and some very small buttons on the steering wheel spokes for cruise control and audio repeaters, and that is it.
The seats are trimmed in a mix of a sort of suede/alcantara material, and cloth. Adjustment of the fore/aft, height and backrest rake is all manual with a bar under the seat and levers on the side, but there is also one switch and this is to alter the side bolsters, which can be made to fit ever more tightly, holding the occupant well in place. Although this feature was nice, I would have appreciated the money being spent on lumbar support instead, as I thought the seat would have been more comfortable had I been able to provide more support to the small of the back. The front part of the seat cushion can be pulled forward to provide extra under thigh support for those with longer legs. There is a manual adjustment of the steering column, with in/out and up/down movement both available.
It is when you open the rear doors that you see the real consequences of the rear wheel drive platform. Although there is more space here than in the first generation 1 Series, accommodation here can still get tight. With a front seat set well forward, as was the case for my driving position, there is no particular problem, but position the seat towards the rear of its settings, and legroom all but disappears. There is both a significant transmission tunnel and a large centre console unit on top of it, which protrudes a long way back, so any middle seat occupant would find they would have to sit with their legs well astride of this, if, indeed there was space for them. The rear seat does not feel wide enough for three anyway. At least headroom is not limited. There is no central armrest. The rear seat will be OK for children, but really this is not going to be a comfortable car for four full-sized adults on a long journey unless those in the front are of my leg length.
The packaging limitations continue with the boot. I put my lap top back in first, then realised that the suitcase would not fit flat on the remaining floor area. This really is quite small compared to some of its rivals. The load space can be extended by dropping the asymmetrically-split rear seat backrests, which drop onto the cushions to create an almost flat load bay. Under the boot floor, you will find the battery and a small area for little odds and ends, but nothing terribly useful. Oddments in the cabin can go in the reasonable sized glovebox, modest door bins, and a small tray and lipped cover to the cupholders in front of the gearlever, as well as a cubby under the central armrest. Rear seat occupants get nets on the front seat backs as well as some small door bins.
BMW offer an extensive range of 1 Series models, in three and five door forms. The model designations may not appear to have changed since the 2011 launch, but part of the mid-life refresh in 2015 saw the introduction of the latest generation of engines. The rather weedy 114i, 116i and 114d models disappeared, but there is still plenty of choice from what is left. Petrol models range from the 136 bhp 118i, which now uses a three cylinder engine through the 184 bhp of the 2 litre 4 cylinder 120i and 224 bhp 125i and on to the top spec 6 cylinder 340 bhp M140i, whilst the diesel cars start with the three cylinder 116 bhp 116d, and then include the 118d as tested, the 190 bhp 120d and 204 bhp 125d. Six speed manual gearboxes are standard on the less potent models, with the 8 speed Steptronic auto an option. The more potent models are offered with the 8 speed Sport Auto transmission. BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive is offered on some of the more costly models. And then there are the trim packs: SE, Sport, M-Sport and M-Sport Shadow Edition. And that’s before you get to the pages and pages of options which cover everything from colour to style of wheel to upgraded audio and in car systems as well as items of trim and some costly dynamic upgrades such as adaptive sport suspension and adaptive lights. The SE nets you remote control central locking, keyless engine ignition, electric window controls, electrically heated exterior mirrors and the Driving Experience Control switch. Also included is automatic air conditioning, a multi-function leather steering wheel adjustable for height and reach, a rain sensor including automatic driving lights control and a front passenger airbag that can be deactivated. A CD and DAB stereo with six speakers and an AUX-In socket, plus Bluetooth audio streaming functionality are other standard equipment features, along with the iDrive operating system and the recently upgraded BMW Navigation system. The 16-inch alloy wheels look a bit puny, but then there’s always the options list. Or indeed, the Sport model for another £1,000 more. This gets 17-inch rims, ambient lighting, black high-gloss interior trim, Sport exterior styling elements, Sport steering wheel and Sports seats. For an additional £2,700 above SE specification, M Sport trim comes as standard with 18-inch M Sport alloy wheels, aluminium hexagon interior trim, M Aerodynamic body styling, M Sport suspension, Sport seats, Alcantara upholstery and an M Sport leather steering wheel. The M140i model features uprated steering, suspension, gearbox and wheels/tyres combination. Many owners will be tempted by the optional 360-watt Harman Kardon stereo, complete with 12 speakers and a digital amplifier, which was fitted to the test car, along with the optional Metallic paint.
The 1 Series has plenty of rivals these days. As well as the German duo of Audi A3 and Mercedes A Class, those with a premium badge include the Volvo V40, Lexus CT200 and Infiniti Q30 and what could be more sporting in heritage than an Alfa Giulietta, and that’s before you contemplate the dozen or so other cars of similar size from the more mainstream brands, ranging from the Golf to the Focus and Astra and many others. I’ve not driven absolutely all of them, but I have sampled quite a few, and there are plenty of excellent products on offer now. Standards are almost universally high, and so choosing between them will often come down either to personal preference or to the finances. On the latter, BMW is surprisingly competitive these days with BMW Finance offering some incredible deals which make their cars far more affordable than models with a much lower list price, and with some of the class’ lowest quoted emissions figures, tax rates will be low, even if the fuel economy may not be quite as impressive as the figures would suggest. However, that’s only of interest if you want the car in the first place. And I am not sure I do. Provided you keep it out of Sport + mode, there is nothing seriously wrong with the way the car drives, and it has a very refined engine. But it is also less roomy inside than most of its rivals, and I still find the looks on the awkward side, things which some of its competitors avoid. Despite what the advertisers and PR folk might want you to believe, the 118d is more about family transport than anything that is decidedly sporty, so these limitations are probably significant. In purely objective terms, the Audi A3 strikes me as a better bet. It may be fashionable in the British press to moan about Audi cars for reasons which often are hard to discern when you actually try one yourself, and indeed my experience of a 2.0 TDi 3 door model a couple of years suggested that this is the case. Even less popular (now) with the press is the Alfa Giulietta, but a weekend driving one of these only recently reminded me that this is still a very good car. If I was going to eschew the mainstream, and the excellence of the Seat Leon, I think I would agonise over whether to pick either of these over the BMW.